Dedicated public servants

Friday, January 5, 2007

As our community enters the new year of 2007, we mark the departure of two public officeholders who have served the Barry County judicial system with distinction, character and integrity. Judge J. Edward Sweeney has dedicated the past 21 years to public service, first serving as Barry County associate circuit judge and then finishing out his career on the bench as 39th Judicial Circuit judge covering Barry, Lawrence and Stone counties. Judge Michael Garrett is retiring after serving eight years as Barry County associate circuit judge.

Both men are uniquely different, yet both performed their duties in exceptional ways. In my role as newspaper reporter and editor, I have had the opportunity to witness both men handing out justice in local court cases. Without fault, Judge Sweeney and Judge Garrett had complete control of the courtroom and treated every person who stood before them with dignity and respect.

I have watched Judge Sweeney preside over at least two murder trials over the past 10 years and I was impressed with how he handled these highly charged cases. In particular, I noticed his deference to jurors, the way he was able to explain complicated court proceedings to those who were having trouble navigating burdensome legalese and his patience with witnesses and lawyers alike. I also appreciated how Judge Sweeney often took time to explain the reasoning behind sentences he handed down in various cases. These explanations revealed his deep understanding of the law and his devotion to making sure justice was served in his courtroom. He was always fair, always straightforward and showed a quiet compassion for anyone who found themselves thrust into the court system, especially the victims.

Judge Garrett has also won my respect and admiration, and through our many interviews and interactions, I am pleased to call him a friend. Judge Garrett is a man of great faith who truly leads by example. I have sat in his courtroom and watched him treat people with incredible compassion and respect. There was one particular case when an accused murderer was standing before the judge's bench awaiting arraignment and Judge Garrett sincerely inquired about his health and whether he was receiving his medication. I had trouble looking at this violent, unkempt man without a sneer on my face, yet Judge Garrett was treating him like our democratic society requires, innocent until proven guilty. It would have been easy for the judge to become cynical because of his heavy criminal caseload, but Judge Garrett remained unchanged to the end. He treated everyone the same and followed the Golden Rule, which requires us to treat others like we would like to be treated.

Judge Garrett handed out justice equitably and with great humility. I believe everyone who stood before his bench left the courtroom feeling as if they had been heard and treated fairly.

I also appreciated how Judge Garrett always had time for me over the years. He never failed to ask about Mike and the boys and seemed extremely interested in their wellbeing. I also have very fond memories of the one year that Judge Garrett and his wife, Phyllis, and Mike and I all participated in the MS150 bike ride. It was my first ride and I will never forget that Mike and Phyllis were at my side during those first few miles, encouraging me and easing my fears. Once again, they made an extra effort to make sure I felt good about the experience and it is kindness like that that will be remembered for a lifetime.

Thank you Judge Sweeney and Judge Garrett for your dedicated service to the Barry County community and the local judicial system. You both have set the bar high and your successors on the bench would do very well to follow your lead. Good luck in your "retirement" - you will be missed.